What to consider when your business needs more than a traditional PC can offer
by Josh Peterson
February 8, 2017

Most businesses are well aware of the timesaving benefits afforded by email, document generation and internet-browsing software running on a traditional desktop or personal computer (PC). But, when the needs of the company grow beyond these standard applications to require sophisticated design, information and management tools, a change in computer hardware is needed.

High-end software requires high-end, workstation-grade hardware in order to properly function. Before moving to a more compute-intensive platform, the business decision maker should understand the fundamental differences between a workstation and a PC.

Making the Right Choice

For a typical business running standard office applications, such as word processing, e-mail, presentation software and simple spreadsheet calculations, the performance level and storage capacity of a standard, business PC is adequate. However, if the business grows to involve designers, engineers, architects, financial analysts or researchers running more demanding software, then a workstation should be considered. Such professionals typically need access to applications to render complex graphics, create sophisticated digital content and run database-intensive financial analysis and CAD-type technical computations, as seen in Table 1. These applications can overwhelm the hardware components commonly used in a PC and lead to a loss of productivity. As a result, employee satisfaction declines.

Even a traditional business like construction has become increasingly dependent upon sophisticated programs to ensure the fast, accurate exchange of information and data. Today’s construction business has moved from blueprints, which can be ridden with mistakes, to digital representations contained in building information modeling (BIM) and collaborative file sharing.

After breaking ground, many project managers find that typical PC programs that handle paper forms, random photos and generic spreadsheets are no longer adequate tools to deal with projects of growing complexity. Many people hear the word “workstation” and picture a product costing several thousand dollars. While this used to be true, the cost delta between a PC and a workstation is lower than it has ever been. However, the two solutions are designed for completely different workloads.

Workstation Versus PC

A workstation can be thought of as a beefed-up, commercial, business-grade PC. In terms of hardware, this means a multitude of dedicated, high-end processors, professional graphics cards and large amounts of memory and storage. Further, workstations are designed to be more reliable than PCs, in order to withstand harsher environmental conditions, from operating 24/7 to dealing with the greater heat generation, which is often caused by high-powered components. Most workstations are also certified by independent software vendors in order to ensure the applications will run with the intended performance and reliability.

Table 1Table 1

Additionally, users expect a different experience from workstations than they do with PCs. A recent report from the 3-D CAD modeling community found that users complained about the slow speed of PCs when running powerful business applications. Many noted that it often took minutes, instead of seconds, to open files or compile 3-D models and video edits on a PC. The cause for the slow performance was the lack of sufficient processing power, graphics performance and memory speed available on most PCs.

Another complaint was that robust technical and business programs would automatically disable several features when running on a PC versus a workstation, as the PC had insufficient memory and less available performance capabilities.

Tasks Determine the Tool

Business and technical users alike can be easily overwhelmed by the variety of configurations available for the workstation. Selecting the appropriate configuration requires research, knowledge and reviews from other users. Just remember that the most appropriate workstation should be more than just the sum of its parts. The following guidelines highlight important considerations when selecting a workstation:

  1. Cost—Workstations cost more than PCs, as the software running on a workstation is often more expensive than the office software that operates on PCs. Typically, a PC costs $300 to $1,000, while workstations costs about $700 and up.
  2. Performance—A PC is fine for typical office applications, but a workstation is needed to handle more sophisticated programs (see Table 1).
  3. Reliability—Workstations are held to a higher level of reliability than most PCs. Each component and subsystem is built for full-time operation, typically for 3 or more years of service. This level of robustness is required to handle the computations needed for large database manipulation, modeling and simulation.
  4. Form Factor—Like PCs, workstations are available in both mobile and desktop form factors. Mobile workstations provide the same performance benefit over a typical laptop. For desktop workstations, they come in a large variety of sizes and capabilities.
  5. Hardware—Workstation components and subsystems fall into these categories:
  • Internal memory—Workstations typically use higher quality, error-correction code (ECC) random access memory (RAM) to ensure high system reliability. RAM is the computer’s internal memory, the place where the computer stores data and information for quick retrieval. RAM is “volatile,” meaning that the information that is put in it disappears when the power is turned off. Typically, the larger and more complex the model, the more RAM you want to configure. For best performance, maximize the amount of RAM. This also gives you more headroom as projects continue to become more complex. To determine the optimal amount, look at both the recommendations for the workstation’s operating system and the applications you intend to use.
  • Processors—There are two primary types of processing subsystems in workstations; namely, central processing units (CPUs) and graphical processing units (GPUs). High-end workstations tend to have more powerful CPUs and GPUs than you would find on a PC. Most workstations do fine with just CPU and GPU boards, each of which may have multiple cores within a single chip. As the names imply, the CPU performs most of the general number crunching processing activity. Similarly, the GPUs handle the graphic intensive video calculations and renderings. Today’s CPUs and GPUs work closely together to optimize processing tasks and performance. To determine which CPU and GPU are needed for your application, read the hardware requirements of the business or technical software programs that you will be using. You can also get help from the workstation vendors, as they often have tools on their websites to help you find the right configuration.
  • Storage—The workstation’s hard disk drive or modern, solid state drive (SSD) is referred to as storage. It’s the place where data is recorded and can stay indefinitely, to be recalled when needed. Unlike conventional hard-disk drives, SSDs have no moving parts, so there is less chance of a physical failure. They provide much faster access to your data, increasing your application performance.
  • Interfaces—Interfaces connect the computer to peripherals like keypads, drawing devices and printers, as well as the outside world. Connectivity interface cards connect the workstation to the local office network, the global internet and the cloud. The faster the interface, the quicker the workstations can send and receive information and data.

In today’s competitive market, providing employees with the right tools that make them more productive and more creative will pay huge dividends to a business. For businesses that have grown beyond the typical office applications to more sophisticated design, automation and management tools, a workstation is the best choice.

Regardless of whether a PC or workstation is the right solution, the one thing they have in common is that semiconductor innovations have led to continued decreases in costs, while the performance and capabilities have increased.